Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: Cabinet Secretary's statement 28 April 2020

Update on coronavirus legislation in a statement from Michael Russell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, given on Tuesday 28 April to the Scottish Parliament.

I am pleased to be able to update the chamber today on coronavirus legislation and related matters.

Last Friday, I gave evidence to the first meeting of the new Covid-19 Committee. The Committee will play a key role in ensuring the legislative powers which have been granted to the government to respond to Covid 19, and to the unprecedented circumstances in which we all currently find ourselves, are properly scrutinised. 

The Scottish Government welcomes this scrutiny, and my Ministerial colleagues and I are committed to engaging with the Committee.

This afternoon, I would like to  update the chamber on four main strands of legislative and related activity:

  • Firstly, the management of the overall legislative programme
  • Secondly, the development and management of further potential Covid Bills
  • Thirdly, the oversight of the Public Health Regulations (the so called ‘lockdown’ regulations), and
  • Finally the co-ordination of reporting on the implementation of Covid legislation and regulations.

Presiding Officer, the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans’ statement to Parliament on 1 April set out the Scottish Government’s approach to management of the legislative programme during this difficult period. 

As I indicated to the Committee on Friday this not only supersedes any plans previously published, but also confirms Mr Dey’s intention to keep the programme under constant review.

The priority is to ensure the passage of essential legislation – Covid and non Covid -  and the resources necessary to do that, given the demands of the current situation are likely to be under considerable pressure and would be further, and very perilously, stretched if the UK Government does not seek an extension to the Brexit timetable.  

With those caveats in mind, let me turn to the need for further COVID Primary legislation. 

Such legislation – here, at Westminster and in the other devolved Parliaments – is about addressing the disruption to national life and the public services and public sector that dealing with the virus is causing.

Of course, the priority is to save lives and all of us will be more than aware of the individual and collective tragedies that have been, and are being played out every day, as well as the individual and collective heroism displayed by our front line services.

The measures we are able to take legislatively to help support our fellow citizens are temporary – they are about getting us through this current situation to the time when we can undertake renewal of our country and ourselves.  

How we do that – in fact, how we collectively choose to do that - was the subject of the framework that the First Minister published last Thursday and I shall say something more about that in a minute.

But for now we need to continue to temporarily alter our laws and regulations so that we can operate during lockdown as effectively, efficiently and supportively as we can.

The UK Bill and the Scottish Bill were immediate reactions.  The second Scottish Bill I now intend to bring forward includes similar issues, but also items that are required to overcome some problems with statutory deadlines which cannot now be met as well as reflecting that the disruption caused by the pandemic will be with us for some time yet.   

I have asked the opposition parties for details of what they might want to see in the Bill, and I hope to give them more granular details of content later this week, but let me indicate just some of the issues that I already know will be covered:

Registered Social Landlords will be given more time to lodge their accounts with the Scottish Housing Regulator.

The timetable for holding the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change will be relaxed, although I can assure Parliament—and especially the Green Party  who were responsible for this amendment to the Climate Change Act—that this will not diminish our commitment to this project.   

Reflecting the realities of our housing market, for those who had paid the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) Additional Dwelling Supplement prior to a particular date, the Bill will extend the time period during which a previous main residence must be sold in order for them to claim a repayment from Revenue Scotland.

The Bill will remove requirements to serve or intimate documents on the walls of court.

And the Bill will also amend the UEFA European Championship Act 2020 to reflect the postponement of the Euro 2020 championships to 2021.

Presiding Officer,

In addition to  the Scottish Bills and the UK Bill, there are also an increasing number of SSIs being prepared by Scottish Ministers which are part of the legislative response to the coronavirus outbreak.  These are in train and will be subject to scrutiny by the committees as appropriate.

All these are technical, but they are also a necessary part of our national response.  We will try our very best to ensure that they are also consensual and I commit myself to continued cross party working in that regard. 

Presiding Officer, let me now turn to the lockdown regulations.

As members will be aware, the First Minister announced the outcome of the first review of the Public Health Regulations on 16 April and the Scottish Government made amending regulations on 21 April.

The next 3-week review period for those regulations ends on 7 May.

Last week, the First Minister published a paper that set out the criteria, the factors and the framework on which future decisions might be based, and this is clearly a key focus for the Government now.

This document was intended to start – and has started – a national conversation not just about the current issues but also about what we will have learnt about ourselves  during this time and how we will apply that to the future of our communities, our society and our nation as good neighbours on these islands, as upholders of the values we share with our European friends, and as global citizens.

The bible reminds us that there is a time for everything, ‘a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together – a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing’.

It is not yet the time for renewal, but it is the time to think about renewal.  

And although it is time to start to talk about how we might move on from lockdown, it is not yet the time – absolutely, not yet the time – to relax for a second, our vigilance and our vital obligation to stay at home, protect the NHS and by so doing save lives.

I want to emphasise that last point, particularly.  

There is still a very high level of observance of the lockdown regulations. I took part in a conference call with the other governments of the UK yesterday, which touched on that subject and it is clear that there remains very strong public support for what is being done.

The police are working with diligence but also with discretion, underlining the “four Es”, engage, explain, encourage and only thereafter enforce.  

Of course, there is a temptation to blur the edges of the rules particularly in better weather.  On Saturday, for example, there were 766 compliant dispersals, that is where people were asked , and agreed, to move on and to change what they were doing.  

That is compared to an overall total of just over 6,000 between the 28th of March and the 26th of April. 

We as political leaders need to follow the four Es too. We need to engage with our constituents on this issue.  We need to explain why it is so essential for these measures to continue and the reason of course is simple.   We must save lives.

We need to encourage continued observance and, of course, we need to support the police when enforcement becomes necessary.

And we need to go on doing so until we are all confident, and have incontrovertible evidence  that the virus has been permanently supressed.

Finally, Presiding Officer let me  turn to the issue of reporting.

The Scottish Coronavirus Act places a duty on Ministers to report to the Scottish Parliament on implementation every two months, with the first report due when the first reporting period under the legislation ends on 31 May. As members will recall, I have also given a commitment to report to parliament on actions taken under the UK Act in the same way, and it is my intention to combine both of these into a single report.

As I noted in my opening remarks to the Committee on Friday, the content of this report and our approach requires careful consideration. When combining the provisions within the LCM and the first Scottish Bill, there are over 40 which will require some measure of reporting – and this is before we also add in the items requiring reporting in the next Scottish Bill.

Our aim is to be as transparent and as helpful to the Parliament and to the people of Scotland as we can. We must be able to demonstrate that where powers are being used, they are being used properly and proportionally to implement measures which we consider to be essential. And also that such powers are not being used if they are no longer needed - and if so, the reasons why.

Reporting must reflect not only the need to avoid placing undue pressures on those at the heart of our response, but also the fact that the measures within the legislation are of varying degrees of significance in terms of their impacts and the level of interest in their operation.

Some measures are of particular significance or interest - for example because of their potential impact on vulnerable groups or implications for particular rights or protected characteristics. Others may emerge as such over time, and our approach must be sufficiently flexible to respond to this.

What we are therefore considering is a matrix approach by which we would prioritise measures of most significance and greatest interest in our reporting as those on which more detail on the operation of the powers will be needed.

The criteria by which we judge significance and impact is a very important question. The particular areas where we may wish to direct our focus within the reporting process is jermaine and I am happy to hear views this afternoon on that issue.

On a final point, I am aware there are areas of interest where members will wish to seek information on specific decisions or matters relating to implementation or operationalising of measures contained in the legislation. In such cases, where this information is requested in advance of the formal report, I will be happy to follow these up with my Ministerial colleagues who have portfolio responsibility for the relevant area.

In concluding, Presiding Officer, I hope that this update has been helpful to members and I would underline again the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to engaging with Parliament and colleagues across the chamber as we take forward our legislative response to Covid 19.

With that, I would be happy to take any questions.

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